Scandals, crises, fiascos, and debacles have a shelf life of about seven months. Then everyone gets tired of hearing about them and just wants to move on. “Looking forward” was the phrase the Administration used to justify not looking backwards and prosecute any perpetrators in the financial crisis – the real ones, not some Goldman trader with a penchant for hilarious and embarrassingly honest emails.
So we can expect the same thing now: after the surveillance scandal’s sell-by-date has expired, people will have gotten used to the idea that the government, along with corporate America, scan, store, analyze, and mine every bit of data out there, emails, communications, digital images taken by license-plate readers and surveillance cameras, photos posted on Facebook, big financial transactions and mundane purchases, anything stored online, even online backups. Anywhere. Going back years.
“Get over it,” Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy admonished us in 1999 about the idea that privacy was dead. He was talking up his book. His company made servers. Once reduced to a penny stock, Sun was bought by Oracle and has dragged down its earnings ever since.
Meanwhile, there was a piquant morsel in the daily stream of revelations.
“According to intelligence officials,” who remained unnamed, the NSA is not just looking at meta-data when Americans send emails and texts overseas, as the government had proclaimed when the scandal first broke, but is actually searching the content, however steamy it might be, the New York Times reported. These aren’t emails from Americans who’re cavorting with terrorists, but from Americans who happened to use a keyword that might be in some way connected to those targets. No Warrant, No Problem.
We could assume that all along. Email providers like Google scan every email for keywords –though they encrypt it to keep others out. Companies want to find out more about you, your vacation plans, hotels you might be booking, or whatever, in order to serve you more personalized ads. Google has been open about it. All this is stored and analyzed – and transmitted at the appropriate time to the NSA or other agencies at the federal, state, or local level.
But the revelation is nevertheless one more in an endless series of revelations that contradict an equally endless series of denials by the government. It’s all perfectly legal, apparently, warrantless cross-border surveillance having been authorized by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, as long as the “target” overseas is a non-citizen. Congress, our most esteemed institution in the country, passed this law. No wonder that a Gallup survey in early June showed that a whopping 10% of Americans still had confidence in Congress. But that was before NSA leaker Edward Snowden appeared on the scene.
Not that there wasn’t an attempt to move in the right direction. In July, Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican, and Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat, proposed legislation that would have curtailed the NSA’s all-encompassing surveillance activities. But the White House, after palavering about how much it “welcomes a debate” on this issue, slammed the legislation as it would “hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools.” The next day, Congress killed the legislation (roll call).
Turns out, President Obama’s unwavering support for giving the NSA a free hand is sort of new. Five years ago, as Senator, he had other ideas. According to Pro Publica:
Obama co-sponsored a 2007 bill, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would have required the government to demonstrate, with “specific and articulable facts,” that it wanted records related to “a suspected agent of a foreign power“ or the records of people with one degree of separation from a suspect. The bill died in committee. Following pressure from the Bush administration, lawmakers had abandoned a similar 2005 measure, which Obama also supported.
That bill that he as Senator co-sponsored was similar to the House amendment that he as President slammed on July 23. In February 2008, he co-sponsored an amendment that would have curtailed the government’s ability to scan any communications to or from people residing in the US. And if analysts picked up communications from Americans “incidentally,” they would have to get a warrant before being able to access them. It failed. The list goes on.
However, in June 2008, as he was running hard and heavy for President and already smelled the sweet scent of the Oval Office, he had a change of heart – a sign that he was undergoing a presidential conversion. He supported the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that authorized the NSA’s infamous PRISM program and granted immunity to telecom carriers involved in government-sponsored surveillance.
He’d become a true believer in surveillance. It’s all for the greater good. The War on Terrorism justifies whatever it takes. Prior limits would not apply. Much like the exigencies of Big Data (and serving more effective ads) in the corporate world. And it has all been made very convenient by the cloud.